ROSEMONT, IL — After dropping their first game of the season on Tuesday night against Wake Forest, the Fighting Illini (6-1) traveled to the western suburbs of Chicago to take on the Northwestern Wildcats (4-3) in the Illini’s earliest Big Ten match-up in school history of Friday night.
The Wildcats jumped out to an early 7-3 lead over Illinois after Vic Law nailed back-to-back shots and Aaron Falzon nailed a pair of free throws to put Northwestern up 7-3 at the 17:43 mark in the first half. However, Illinois would quickly erase the Northwestern advantage after Aaron Jordan hit a layup and a trio of free-throws to give Illinois the lead.
After Illinois jumped out to a five point lead on the strength of a Te’Jon Lucas layup, the Wildcats would respond with a Bryant McIntosh jumper and a Vic Law dunk to pull Northwestern within just two with 13:13 to play in the opening half.
Midway through the first half the Illini led the Wildcats 17-13 but the tempo was definitely that of a back and forth pace, with both teams trading early runs in their respective Big Ten openers.
Illinois would jump out to another lead after a Leron Black Jumper and a pair of free-throws by Da’Monte Williams gave the Illini a 23-15 lead with under 10 minutes to play. After the brief surge by the Illini, both teams fell into a spell of funky basketball that consisted of bad turnovers and missed shots for a period of about four minutes. The back and forth tempo that made the early portion of the game dissipated in exchange for a slow pace with fouls and turnovers.
After the lull, the Wildcats woke up first and pulled the game to within two points once again with Illinois leading 28-26 with 3:10 remaining in the first half at the Allstate Arena. The spark by Northwestern was reciprocated by Illinois, and the game reverted back to the earlier pace of both sides trading blows with each other.
Northwestern would end up tying the Illini at 32-a-piece with under a minute to play in the first half on a pair of Aaron Falzon free throws before Illinois took the lead back on a pair of Mark Alstork free throws with 35.9 seconds in the first. After a Northwestern turnover, Alstork would sink a layup to extend the Illinois lead to 36-32 at the half.
Alstork led the Fighting Illini in scoring in the first half with eight points on 2-3 shooting in the first half while Leron Black and Aaron Jordan each added seven points in the opening half for Illinois. Illinois led the first half for a dominating 15:17 despite the game being close nearly the entire first half.
Northwestern opened the second half like the first half, on a run, scoring the first seven points of the half to take a 39-36 lead with 16:16 to play in the game before Leron Black and Te’Jon Lucas hit back-to-back baskets to regain the lead 40-39 with just over 15 minutes to play.
The second half was much like the first half, a heated battle between two talented Big Ten opponents trading blows and keeping the game close, the two teams were tied 51-51 with 7:49 to play in the second half.
With 3:20 to go in the game, Hillside, IL native Scottie Lindsey drove the lane and slammed home the basketball to give the Wildcats a late 60-59 lead over the Fighting Illini after Illinois held a slim lead for much of the second half. After a pair of Illini free throws, Vic Law nailed a three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 63-61 lead with 2:50 to play. The Illini would tie the game at 63 after Leron Black hit a pair of free throws with 2:47 to play, marking the ninth tie of the night in Rosemont.
After Northwestern turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions, they were graced with the final shot in a tie game after Leron Black was called for an offensive foul with 22.6 to go. Northwestern held the ball for the final shot, but turned the ball over for the fourth consecutive possession to send the game to overtime after a missed heave by Illinois.
Even in the overtime period, the two teams struggled to come up with a basket, taking the 63-63 tie to the 3:25 mark in overtime before Micheal Finke hit a free throw to give Illinois a 65-64 lead. After Vic Law picked up his fifth foul with 1:49 to play in overtime, Northwestern totaled three players fouled out in the game.
With under a minute to play, the Wildcats led 70-68 and took possession after a rejected shot on the defensive end, giving the Cats the ball and the lead with 33 seconds to play. The Wildcats would win the ballgame after Illinois came up empty on their final possession and fouled Northwestern. The Wildcats took a very hard fought Big Ten contest by a final score of 72-68.
Leron Black led the Illini with 15 points on the night while Te’Jon Lucas scored 14 and Mark Alstork scored 14 for the Fighting Illini in the losing effort as Illinois loses their second consecutive game and falls to 6-2 on the season and 0-1 in conference play.